Motorcyclists riding 'slippery slope' with aftermarket parts
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HAMERSVILLE, Ohio -- The first dollar Rick Doyle ever earned as a $3 million-a-year dealer of aftermarket motorcycle parts is tacked to the wall of a dusty barn in rural Ohio, where two custom-built bikes have been pushed to the corner, forgotten. There is nothing now except a 10-year-old tractor. The biker calender above the desk still reads February 2006.
That's about when Mr. Doyle made an unsettling discovery about an industry that for decades catered to motorcyclists who pride themselves on customizing bikes with unique features and high-powered parts.
Some of the products that Mr. Doyle had sold by the thousands -- from undersized mirrors and lights to high-performance carburetors -- appeared to violate federal standards meant to keep the roads safe and the air clear of excessive emissions. Other parts that showed signs of being dangerous weren't covered by any standard at all. Mr. Doyle started researching the fine print of federal law after a series of aftermarket parts broke while he was customizing bikes. He was also engaged in a dispute over shipping and billing with one of his biggest parts suppliers.
"I felt like my chest had a piano on it when I realized the number of products I had sold, as well as countless ignorant dealers," said Mr. Doyle, whose business, known as the Hog Farm, is now shuttered. "But no one wanted to hear it. No one wanted to investigate it. The government was letting these companies sell anything they wanted."
From the hard-core to the weekend enthusiast, motorcyclists for generations have customized bikes by replacing manufacturers' parts with high-performance exhausts, larger carburetors and sleeker mirrors, lights and turn signals. The practice has vaulted into the forefront of pop culture with celebrities such as Jesse James and reality shows such as "American Chopper."
But many aftermarket parts sold in plain sight online and in catalogs fail to comply with federal safety standards or the Clean Air Act, according to safety and environmental experts. Other parts not covered by standards are considered dangerous, such as passenger seats stuck to motorcycles with suction cups.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency regulate the industry but struggle with limited budgets and resistance from within the motorcycle industry. The laws themselves can be confusing, with nuances that make oversight difficult.
Parts installed on bikes used solely for competition, for example, are exempted from Clean Air Act standards. Parts that fail to comply with federal safety standards, such as undersized mirrors and lights, could be used legally to supplement standard equipment.
"I could probably go online and look at a catalog and buy a variety of things that may put my motorcycle out of compliance," said Peter terHorst, spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association. "The question in my mind is: Does the requirement apply to the manufacturer or to the operator of the vehicle? It's a slippery slope."
Many motorcyclists add that individual riders must be allowed to make their own decisions, regardless of what the standards say. In the biker culture, freedom reigns, with many riders bucking interference from Washington.
While some riders advocate helmet use, protective gear and sound testing, others resist mandatory helmet laws and noise ordinances, saying loud pipes on exhaust systems give fair warning to drivers and pedestrians.
The industry has political muscle, with motorcycle associations spending about $2 million on lobbying in 2010 and 2011, including support of a 14-year-old law banning NHTSA from initiating discussions with lawmakers on helmet use and other issues.
"People don't want to be told what to do with their bikes," said California motorcyclist Michael Reese. "Does society really care if a guy has loud or modified pipes?"
But air-quality experts cite an environmental toll when bikers tamper with engines, fuel and exhaust systems by substituting aftermarket parts, such as air filters, ignitions and pipes. The average manufactured motorcycle produces 14 times the smog-forming emissions as the average car, California's air quality experts have found.
"These [aftermarket] parts create smog and particle pollution," said Paul Billings, vice president of the American Lung Association. "It's willful violation of the law. We need to go after the manufacturers and retailers."
On the safety side, fatalities among motorcyclists climbed between 2000 and 2008 even as deaths among occupants of passenger vehicles dropped. Motorcycle deaths declined in 2009 but rose again in 2010. Motorcyclists are 25 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a crash and five times more likely to be injured, according to NHTSA.
No one knows whether non-compliant or potentially dangerous parts have contributed to the problems on the roads. Research by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that motorcycles with high-performance capabilities can encourage riders to speed and engage in risky behavior.
NHTSA and federal safety experts say that equipment failure has not caused a large number of crashes, but the federal government has not conducted a comprehensive study of the causes of motorcycle crashes since 1981. That study found that modified bikes were overrepresented in crashes.
First Published May 28, 2012 12:00 am